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Drug Addiction FAQs

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D. Updated: Jun 23rd 2016

Drug addiction is a broad term that describes significant problems with drug use. It is not a diagnostic term recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Nonetheless, it a commonly used term that generally includes an impaired ability to limit drug use, despite the harmful consequences of continued use. In this respect, drug abuse meets the definition of addiction. In our topic center on addiction, we define addiction.

Addiction is the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable.

This definition includes four key components:

1. Addiction includes both substances and activities (such as sex and gambling).
2. Addiction leads to substantial harm.
3. Addiction is repeated involvement despite substantial harm.
4. Addiction continues because it was, or is pleasurable and/or valuable.

You can read more about this definition of addiction in the article entitled, What is drug addiction?.


There are at least four primary ways to understand drug addiction:

1. Drug addiction is a biological problem.
2. Drug addiction is a psychological problem.
3. Drug addiction is a social or cultural problem.
4. Drug addiction is a spiritual problem.

You can learn more about these four ways to understand drug addictionin the article entitled, What causes addiction.

Recent research suggests the causes of addictions, such as drug addiction, are heavily influenced by our biology. When viewed in this manner, drug addiction is sometimes called a disease. However, there is no medical "cure" for drug addiction. Yet, every day people recover from drug addiction. The different ways that people recover from drug addiction rely on psychological, socio-cultural, and spiritual solutions. Therefore, viewing drug addiction as a disease is too simplistic. When drug addiction is viewed as a disease, there is one dividing line. Either you have a disease, or you do not. However, we know people experience varying degrees of difficulty with drugs ranging from none to severe. Additionally, people may experience drug problems during different periods of their life. A disease concept of drug addiction does not account for the full range of drug-related problems that may come and go as people move through their lives. Similarly, it does not account for the many non-medical solutions to recovery from drug addiction.


Of course, people do indeed stop, but it can be quite difficult for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons are due to the way addictions, such as drug addiction, cause changes to the brain. Stopping an addiction requires significant behavioral change. Behavioral change of any sort can be quite difficult. There are psychological reasons for this difficulty. For more information, see the article entitled, How do you get addicted to drugs?

You may also be interested to read more about addiction and the perceived loss of control in our addictions topic center.


There are at least two ways to decide whether you might be addicted to drugs: 1) a formal diagnostic assessment performed by an addictions specialist, or 2) an informal self-assessment.

Drug addiction is a specific type of addiction. To perform an informal self-assessment you can use the definition of addiction and evaluate your own behavior according to this definition. In our topic center on addiction, addiction is defined as:

Addiction is the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable.

In the section entitled, What is drug addiction? we listed the many types of substantial harm that meet this definition of addiction. You could use this list to decide if your drug use behavior meets this definition of addiction. Addiction differs from "behavin' badly" because it means someone is repeatedly involved with a substance or activity despite substantial harm.

The second way to decide if you have an addiction to drugs is to request a formal assessment by an addictions specialist. If you are concerned about the possibility having any type of addiction problem, it may be wise to ask your healthcare provider or EAP specialist for some guidance. They can refer you to an addictions specialist who will help you make an accurate assessment.


First, there are two basic types of self-help support groups:

1. Self-empowering support groups
2. 12-step support groups

Addiction is similar to many other types of problems. Some people require professional assistance, while other people do not. 12-step groups (e.g., AA) are non-professional groups. One of the primary differences between 12-step groups and professional treatment is the issue of confidentiality. Professional healthcare providers are required by law to maintain confidentiality. No such assurances exist in non-professional groups. Another significant difference is that professional healthcare providers rely on science and research to guide their methods. 12-step support groups rely on spiritual solutions. These differences have led to a great deal of unnecessary controversy between supporters of science and supporters of 12-step groups. It is perfectly fine to integrate spiritual and scientific solutions. We developed a guide to help you set up your own personal program of recovery.


There are four key ingredients for successful addictions recovery. This is true whether someone is attempting independent recovery, or relying on professional help. These are:

1. Humility
2. Motivation
3. Sustained effort
4. Restoring meaning and purpose to life

Of these, motivation is perhaps the most essential. It is important to note that motivation can be strengthened. So, even if someone is initially unsure about whether they want to give up drinking, they can increase their own motivation by a realistic appraisal of the costs and benefits of continuing drinking versus quitting. One technique that helps people make an accurate appraisal is called motivational interviewing. You can read more about these four key ingredients and motivational interviewing in this article.


There are many different types of help available from self-help groups to professional treatment. We have created a personal action plan for recovery for those people who would prefer the self-help approach. We have also developed guidelines for choosing treatment options for those people who prefer professional assistance. The most important thing to do is take some action, rather than just wondering about it. Although thinking about a problem usually precedes doing something about it, the bottom line is that action is what creates the desired change.

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